Mouth Full of Blood by Toni Morrison review: Vast, deep and superb
These essays take us behind the curtain, which only increases our respect and awe
Toni Morrison: this is a book about life. Photograph: David Levenson/Getty Images
Mouth Full of Blood
Chatto & Windus
In The Wizard of Oz, Toto tugs back the curtain and we discover that the great wizard (“pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”) is a mere mortal getting hands-on with some heavy machinery. In Toni Morrison’s Mouth Full of Blood the curtains are well and truly thrown back, but the resulting guided tour behind the scenes serves to increase our respect and awe, not diminish it.
Morrison – a Nobel and Pulitzer prize winner who in 2012 was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the US’s highest civilian honour – has assembled four decades-worth of essays, speeches and meditations in this collection. It includes previously published reflections as well as commencement talks, introductions, question-and-answer sessions, arguments and reflections. The book is concerned with race, gender and globalisation; with writing (including her own); the role of the press, and the role of the artist. It’s vast. It’s deep. It’s superb.
The book is in two parts, The Foreigner’s Home, and God’s Language, with what is described as an interlude – Black Matter(s) – in between. Each section opens with a heartfelt address: to the dead of September 11th, Martin Luther King, James Baldwin. The Foreigner’s Home, which covers issues of foreignness, nationalism and citizenship, includes the wonderfully titled The War on Error, an Amnesty International Lecture from 2004. In it she says, “Constitutional rights are facing impoverishment and annihilation as the biggest, most undertold story in the United States is the looming disenfranchisement of the electorate.” She adds, in relation to electronic voting machines, “while any astute hacker can gain access, the largest manufacturer of these new machines is able to calculate (perhaps control) the results in its home office.”
She is clear that prejudice and bigotry are far from new: Racism and Fascism opens with, “Let us be reminded that before there is a final solution, there must be a first solution, a second one, even a third. The move toward a final solution is not a jump.”
Fans of Beloved will be delighted with a piece that revisits the book she originally dedicated to the “sixty million and more” who died as a result of the slave trade. She writes: “Beloved originated as a general question, and was launched by a newspaper clipping. The general question (remember, this was the early eighties) centred on how – other than equal rights, access, pay, etc – does the women’s movement define the freedom being sought?” The newspaper clipping was an article describing an abolitionist cause célèbre, focused on a female slave named Margaret Garner: “The details of her life were riveting. But I selected and manipulated its part to suit my own purposes.” Writers reading will, I suspect, immediately leap on the huge power of “but”.
A piece in Black Matters devotes the first couple of hundred words to explaining why she didn’t use her original title for it, Canon Fodder. Such lightning swerves occur regularly, making this a book not just of thoughts but of thought processes. Also, it has an index, which isn’t always the case with such collections. Over and over I checked a date assuming it had to be recent, only to discover the article was 20, 30, 40 years old.
Cinderella’s Stepsisters is a case in point: “But in pursuing your highest ambitions, don’t let your personal safety diminish the safety of your stepsister”, she writes, concluding with: “Women’s rights is not only an abstraction, a cause; it is also a personal affair. It is not only about ‘us’; it is also about me and you. Just the two of us.” Cinderella’s Stepsisters was a commencement address given at Barnard College in 1979. Solidarity between women finds repeated voice throughout, such as in On Beloved: “The time spent with a female friend was not downtime. It was real time.”
This is a book about life, but also about the power and necessity of creating work. In the punch-packing introduction, Peril, she writes: “A writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity.” The life and work of dissident writers who disturb “the social oppression that functions like a coma on the population” should be protected. “How bleak, unlivable, insufferable existence becomes when we are deprived of artwork … The rescue we extend to them is a generosity to ourselves.”
Worth nothing, though, is that the most recent date cited is 2013 (although the two pieces listed as Author’s personal archive are undated), one of only three since 2010. And while this underlines the staying power and universality of her themes and approach, does that miss an opportunity to turn the full force of her light on today’s world? I don’t think so: perhaps, as with the wizard, Mouth Full of Blood tells us that everything we were looking for was right there with us all along.